Bishop of Chester pays tribute to Heritage Lottery Fund support for cathedrals and church buildings

On 17th December 2015 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Holmes of Richmond, “To move that this House takes note, on the occasion of its 21st birthday, of the contribution made by the National Lottery to sport, culture, charities and national heritage throughout the United Kingdom.” The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate,paying tribute to the positive impact lottery funding has had on cathedrals and church buildings. 

14.03 Bishop of Chester

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, most of us will remember the strapline which launched the National Lottery: “It could be you”. Well, I never quite believed that it would be me but, nevertheless, the lottery has had great success over time. Many people thought that it would slightly fade from view and lose some of its initial gloss. Indeed, people worked out that it probably would not be them at all. It is very interesting how it has become a national institution. In that sense, we have been led into temptation on a grand scale.

Understandably, over the years the churches and other faith communities have had a somewhat uneasy relationship with gambling, but quite soon the faith communities worked out that it would be entirely right to accept funding from the lottery for the preservation of the fabric of historic churches and for their adaptation for wider community use. In country areas in particular, the local church often provides the natural focus and perhaps the only building where community groups can gather. There are a number of examples in my diocese where lottery funding has enabled such church buildings to be adapted and freed up for wider community use through the addition of toilet and kitchen facilities, DDA compliance, decent chairs and so forth. As I recall, it was especially around the millennium that there was a particular focus on this kind of project.

Rather greater sums overall have been given to preserve the fabric of historic churches and places of worship. During the time of the lottery, grants for this purpose have totalled around £0.5 billion, including some very large grants to cathedrals. For example, the work on the great east window of York Minster is just nearing completion. Other cathedrals have major projects to improve what is called, in the tourist trade, the visitor experience. From my own cathedral at Chester, I know the importance that a cathedral often has in the wider visitor and tourist strategy of a city. A host of imaginative initiatives are undergirded by the contribution which the HLF makes to building maintenance.

Cathedrals readily catch our attention, but more than 40% of the grade 1 listed buildings in England are local Anglican parish churches. Many are grade 2 or 2* and I think the total is about 8,000. The HLF channels money to these churches through its grants for places of worship scheme. To give an illustration from the diocese of Chester, one of 40 dioceses in the Church of England, in the past three years 13 of my churches have been awarded grants, which typically are around £200,000 and total well over £2 million. That is serious money in anyone’s book. The work is often on roofs, spires, windows and stonework but sometimes, like cathedrals, the project has a wider focus.

Another example, which was just before the last three-year period, was at Daresbury, between Runcorn and Warrington, the parish where Lewis Carroll’s father was vicar and Lewis Carroll was brought up. Very imaginatively, a visitor centre attached to the church has been built to the same high standards as the fabric of this grade 1 church. Visitors come from all over the world to see the exhibit and the memorabilia in the church. In addition, the local community uses that room as a meeting point. The HLF contribution to this project was £370,000, but the parish itself raised more than that—£430,000—to fund the overall project. That illustrates a very important feature of the HLF grants to churches: typically, the funding is part of a wider project and corresponding amounts are raised locally and from other sources.

I have been involved in a number of fundraising ventures over the years, not least when I was vicar of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire. The general rule, of course, is that nothing succeeds like success—that is, it is much easier to raise money if you have a start and something substantial to build on. That is where the HLF grants have been particularly valuable. They have drawn in matched and other funding.

I end by speaking of a much smaller project, but one in my diocese, in the small village of Barthomley, near Crewe. Its population is two or three hundred but it has a marvellous grade 1 church building. I suspect that as HS2 comes to Crewe it will be caught up in the wider development and housebuilding in the area, but we will have to wait and see. The HLF grant enabled the church to tackle urgent structural repairs, but that also released the church to have a vision for other things: to establish a volunteer group to create and monitor a wildlife area in the churchyard and keep the whole churchyard in good condition, and to create in the church a timeline display of its long history. It is also notable because, quite without my agreement, they decided to add a gargoyle over an effigy of myself—I put that in for completion and declare an interest, but I hope that the HLF money was not used for the effigy.

I simply pay tribute to the hugely valuable contribution that the HLF has made to this feature of our national life.